Sam Stewart Jr. left it all out on the field last Friday.
The Liberty senior running back was beaten and battered after playing most of the game on both sides of the ball. At times, it seemed like he put his Liberty teammates and Clovis-Buchanan defenders on his back simultaneously during the Central Section Division I semifinals.
When the dust settled, just minutes after Brayden Blevins kicked a game-winning field goal to lift the Patriots to a 24-23 upset victory, Stewart’s mind went to a place that it enters only occasionally.
And this time, it was in a moment that became larger than any he previously had on the football field. Tears began rolling steadily down his face.
Ten years ago, Stewart began playing Golden Empire Youth Football when he was 8 years old.
Two years before that, his grandmother, Joyce Ann Smith, died unexpectedly from a brain aneurysm. His biggest fan in everything he did as a child never got a chance to see Stewart excel on the football field, where he's become one of the best two-way players in the section.
“I was little. I remember just about everything we ever did,” Stewart said. “I used to tell my mom, ‘I want her to be my mom, you can be my step-mom.’ Me and her were so close. My mom used to drop me off over there (at his grandma’s). I was with her just about every day. When she passed, it was crazy. She’s always with me and a lot of what I do is for her.”
When the No. 3-seeded Patriots beat the second-seeded Bears last week on the road — avenging Liberty's lone loss in 2018 — emotions got the best of Stewart.
“She never got a chance to be here,” Stewart said of his grandma. “So when I was playing (Friday night), I was just talking to her and asking, ‘Please help us win this. Please let him make this field goal.’ It was a lot going on at the moment and it broke me down.”
Liberty (12-1) now plays No. 1 Fresno-Central (12-0) for the Central Section D-I championship on Friday at Koligian Stadium in Fresno. It’s the first title-game appearance for the Patriots since 2015, when Liberty beat Clovis, 56-21.
Central, which beat Buchanan last year for the section championship, has played in each of the past three title games.
After posting a 36-carry, 244-yard rushing performance last week, Stewart now has 1,873 yards on the season. That's just 56 yards shy of the Liberty school-record, 1,928 yards set by Carson Moyer in 2010.
While his high school football career is creeping towards an end, Stewart’s life trajectory has set him up for success on and off the field even through tragedy and adversity.
Two years before his grandmother passed away, Sam's father, Sam, Sr., was sent to prison for selling drugs.
The loss of his father in a household with four children — where Sam was the only boy — took a toll on Sam's mother Juanaki.
Needing a strong male presence in his life while his dad was in prison from 2005 until 2012, Sam's mom’s dad, Curtis Smith Sr., and Sam's uncle, Curtis Jr., stepped up.
“I tell them I love them almost every chance I get,” Sam said. “For a time, my father was in prison and for a long time, they were the men in my life.”
Since, Sam's parents' relationship has mended and they're together again.
“My dad is here every step of the way,” Stewart said. “It’s been a long, lovely journey.”
The commitment his parents made during a troubling time also made Stewart realize what’s important in life.
“I was just a kid when he went away. As you get older and look back, it proves that this is why it all had to play out," Stewart said. "I am happy that’s how it happened.”
Liberty coach Bryan Nixon knows Stewart has become a strong leader on the field because of the guidance he was given despite the many obstacles put in front of him.
“Once you peel back the layers and see what’s there, you understand why the way Sam is,” Nixon said. “He understands things. He is thankful for everything and enjoys the moment. For him to endure some of the things when he was growing up is one of the things that made him the person he is today.”
Stewart, when not chasing down opposing running backs as a linebacker or bowling them over as a high-end running back, has become humble.
“Sam has just been a special kid from early on,” Juanaki said. “He’s a very witty person and will give you the shirt off his back. I just always tell him to believe in his faith.”
Even to this day, Stewart carries his grandmother’s obituary in his football bag, something that surprised his mother when she found it one day while getting laundry ready at home.
“He said it was his good luck charm,” Juanaki said.